The United States is experiencing a surge in new cases of COVID-19. By some metrics, this is the biggest increase in new cases in over a year and one that is threatening to strain hospital capacity. In late December, hospital admissions for COVID-19 exceeded 29,000 a week and deaths were up 10% week over week. The rise in cases, as well as rises in cases of flu and RSV, has caused some health care facilities to reinstitute mask mandates.
And all these new infections are sure to result in new cases of long COVID. Estimates of how many Americans have suffered from long COVID vary wildly, from 7.5% to 41% among nonhospitalized adults. And even relatively minor initial cases can result in lasting disease, which can severely affect even healthy, young people for months or years.
With all of this bad news, there is some very good news. A new series of studies and meta-analyses have concluded that there is one thing everyone can do to greatly reduce the chances of getting long COVID: Keep up with the latest vaccines.
Public health analyst Dr. Lucky Tran estimates that this spike will peak in the next week at an astounding 2 million infections a day, and by the time it is done, nearly a third of Americans will have contracted COVID-19 either for the first time or as a repeat infection.
This is a very good time to wear a mask in public. And yes, masks work.
When COVID-19 vaccines first became available, many people expected the one-and-done, nearly perfect protection of many childhood vaccines. However, that isn’t the case. Not only does the protection afforded by existing COVID-19 vaccines wane over a few months, they are better at protecting people from developing severe symptoms than they are at preventing an initial infection. Getting a COVID-19 vaccination and then testing positive within a few weeks is a disheartening experience, one that might understandably lead to a reluctance to keep current with newer vaccines.
However, as Scientific American reports, those who have had multiple COVID-19 vaccines have an enormous benefit when it comes to preventing long COVID. One analysis looked at the long-term health of 775,931 people across 32 studies and concluded that those who had two vaccine doses reduced their chances of long COVID by 36.9%. Those who had three doses, though, saw a reduction of 68.7%. Cutting the chances of what could be a long-term, life-altering disease by another third is well worth going back for an extra jab.
This result contradicts earlier studies that gave a smaller benefit to vaccines when it came to long COVID. However, those studies were done with smaller numbers of people over a shorter period. Vaccines now seem to be much more potent when it comes to blocking long-term disease.
A second study in The BMJ backs up these latest results. In a study involving 589,722 people in Sweden, those who had a single vaccination were 21% less likely than the unvaccinated to develop long COVID. Two doses brought this to 59%. Three or more doses reduced the chances of long COVID by a whopping 73%.
It’s worth noting that multiple infections do not have the same protective effect. According to a recent study, each new COVID-19 infection increases the chance of developing long COVID. And each new infection increases the chance of serious, long-term illness including kidney disease, diabetes, and mental health issues.
“This dispels the myth that repeated brushes with the virus are mild and you don’t have to worry about it,” said Dr. Rambod Rouhbakhsh. “It is akin to playing Russian roulette.”
With many Americans already experiencing multiple COVID-19 infections, and each infection increasing the chances of long COVID, the vaccine studies come as very good news. However, according to the CDC as of early November, only 14% of American adults have received an updated shot, which has been available since last summer.
That’s millions of unnecessary cases of long COVID that could have been prevented by vaccines. By using masks in public places and keeping current with available vaccines, the chance of long COVID can be massively reduced. New vaccines are on the horizon, but no one should be ignoring the protection available right now.
Otherwise, the barrel of Russian roulette just keeps spinning. And that’s not a game anyone wins over the long run.
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